Michael Peterson, left, and Jean-Xavier de Lestrade.
Photo: WhatsUp / Netflix
The granddaddy of true-crime docuseries, The Staircase follows the 2001 death of Kathleen Peterson and subsequent murder trial of her husband, novelist Michael Peterson. The case’s core question was how Kathleen Peterson actually died: Was she beaten to death with a metal fireplace tool, as the prosecutors in Durham, North Carolina, contended, or did a violent fall result in that gruesome, bloody scene at the foot of their stairs? It was never a simple question to start with, and the trial — documented in The Staircase’s first eight episodes, which originally aired in 2004 — introduced twists and turns that beggared belief, including Michael Peterson’s strange manner, his secret affairs with men, and another dead woman at the foot of a different set of stairs.
But the story didn’t end with that trial. Subsequent legal proceedings necessitated new Staircase installments in 2013, and last Friday, Netflix released three more new episodes, bringing the total to 13. The entire 16-year saga was directed by Jean-Xavier de Lestrade, the French filmmaker whose Murder on a Sunday Morning won an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 2001. Watching The Staircase, it’s clear that de Lestrade got close to his subject, spending hours and hours with Peterson and his lead defense attorney, David Rudolf. Though the series stops short of advocating for Michael Peterson — not exactly, anyway — it does allow Peterson to offer a more nuanced position than he could have in more traditional press. What The Staircase almost entirely ignores, though, is the “owl theory” that was posited late in the trial and sounded too crazy to be true: that Kathleen Peterson wasn’t murdered by Michael Peterson, but was rather attacked by a bird.
Vulture caught up with de Lestrade and Rudolf to talk about the show’s history, the difficulty of making a truly objective documentary, and, yes, that owl. (The conversations took place separately, but are weaved together here.)
How did you first hear about Michael Peterson’s case, and what about it made you want to get involved?
Jean-Xavier de Lestrade: The film I did before Staircase was Murder on a Sunday Morning. That case involved a black teenager who was accused of having killed a woman. He came from a very modest family, and he had a public defender. HBO asked me to do another true-crime documentary, and I told them I wanted to follow a case that was the total opposite. So I started looking for a case involving a white man, wealthy, a very articulate guy who could spend thousands of dollars to pay a defense lawyer. I reviewed maybe 300 different cases, and then we met with Michael Peterson. I felt right away that he was a very good character. You could feel that when he was talking about his love for Kathleen, it was very sincere. On the other hand, you could also feel maybe he was hiding something. The day after, I met with the prosecution team. The first thing they said to me was, “Michael Peterson is evil.” [Laughs.] It wasn’t, “We have huge physical evidence and we know he did it!” It was, “He is evil.” To me, Michael Peterson was prosecuted not because the prosecution had physical evidence to prove he did kill Kathleen, but because of his way of life. When the prosecution discovered that he was cheating on her with men … in a way, he betrayed their community, their values. It was much more about who he was and where he was living than anything else.
David, did you have misgivings about the cameras?
David Rudolf: Many. I have never allowed my clients to be interviewed before a trial. I am opposed, generally speaking, to cameras in the courtroom. I think it changes witness behavior, it may change judges’ behavior, and frankly it probably changes lawyers’ behavior to a certain extent. Michael, once he understood that this crew had just won an Academy Award for Murder on a Sunday Morning, he felt strongly that he wanted somebody like that to chronicle this case, because he never felt like he was going to get a fair trial in Durham. I still had misgivings. The agreement we ended up reaching was that they, initially, would in essence be filming for us. If we were going to have a meeting and they were filming it, they were going to be included in our attorney-client privilege because they were documenting the meeting for our purposes. And the agreement was that there would be no documentary shown to the public until the case was over.
JXL: We signed a confidential agreement with David Rudolf, and we signed the same confidential agreement with the prosecution, that nothing would be released before the verdict. All the material that we filmed was sent to Paris and put in a box. I cut the first eight episodes, David Rudolf watched those to review if something could harm the appeal. He had to do that. Nothing was changed. Not a sentence. He really played fair.
Did you have any sort of ethical struggle with that arrangement?
JXL: Of course! But it was a fair exchange. If he had asked me, “I don’t want this piece in the film,” I would have argued with him and maybe we would have had a confrontation. I don’t know how it would have been resolved.
It seemed like the crew had almost total access to Michael and the defense team.
JXL: We started shooting with the defense and the prosecution. After three months, the prosecution wouldn’t let us film more, because maybe they didn’t feel comfortable with the way we were working. Maybe the prosecution felt that their case was not so strong, and they closed the door.
Did that result in a biased film?
DR: You can see in the first few episodes that they’re presenting both sides, and then the prosecution and the police just cut off contact. Obviously if you’re not talking to the filmmaker, then the filmmaker doesn’t have that perspective. It’s a fair point, but not one you can blame on the filmmakers. Having said that, what they showed of the trial is what happened. The bottom line is that everybody — with the possible exception of [Kathleen Peterson’s sister] Candace — thought that Michael was going to be acquitted. I think the prosecutors were hoping at best for a hung jury.
JXL: It’s difficult to be an objective observer, especially when the other side doesn’t want to participate. We kept trying to shoot with the prosecution and with Kathleen’s family. I really wanted them to be in the film. But because they refused, we were much more close to Michael Peterson. It’s more his point of view, yes, but I really tried to be objective. But it’s the real world, it’s impossible to be objective. I hope that I let people think what they want. If they think he is guilty, that’s fine. The purpose of the series was never to let people think Michael Peterson wasn’t guilty. It’s the mystery of Michael Peterson that was really interesting. What he told me at the end of the last episode was great.
You’re referring to when he talks about his sexuality?
JXL: His bisexuality, and the fact that he never spoke to anyone about that. In a way, he felt guilty about that. He tried to hide his desire. It’s the key of the character, to really understand who he is. The feeling that you get that he’s not telling the whole truth, it’s because he lied to himself during many years.
Jean, is it fair to say that that you were not necessarily convinced of his innocence, but that you think he’s not guilty — that he didn’t get a fair trial?
JXL: Yes, that’s fair. To me, there was huge reasonable doubt. I am not saying that I think Michael Peterson is innocent. What happened that night is still a huge mystery. But during the five-month trial, his guilt was not proven to me. You could feel it standing there every day, that maybe it was not totally fair. Maybe the prosecution did a very good job, but they didn’t play fair.
DR: From my perspective, the lesson of this film is not whether Michael Peterson is guilty or not guilty. The real story of this documentary is how the justice system can go wrong, and what we can learn about junk science and prejudicial evidence skewing the results of trials. I certainly hope that, if nothing else, people who watch this will understand that what happens at a trial is literally the tip of an iceberg.
There’s a moment where you come from behind the camera and hug Michael. Did you consider taking that out of the movie? That scene certainly gives some credence to the idea that the movie is slanted in Michael’s favor.
JXL: Yeah, well … [Laughs.] I was not so comfortable with that, to tell you the truth. At that moment, I was happy for him. And to me, it was a victory for justice. I was happy for that. That was a man who spent more than eight years in prison. I did it, I hugged him, I was shot [doing it], so let’s be fair. I really struggled to let it in the film or not, that image. Because, yes, it can be seen as very biased, of course.
DR: When you spend that much time around someone and observing them and watching them interact with their family and friends, an empathy is created. They never went out for drinks or dinner or anything like that, that I’m aware of. He empathized with him as a human being.
Did you ultimately think, as Michael says on camera, that the film was instrumental in helping his case?
David: It was extremely important in being able to prove that [key prosecution witness Duane] Deaver had in fact committed perjury. When you read a transcript of testimony, it’s black and white. You don’t see facial gestures, you don’t hear the intonations. It’s just a cold record. I had access to the entire trial, so I was able to watch all of Deaver’s testimony and then take clips of where he was lying and show those to the judge. He could see Deaver’s expressions, he could hear Deaver’s tone of voice. He could see Deaver looking at the jury and lying to their faces. I don’t think we would necessarily have gotten a new trial in the absence of those videos.
JXL: I know Michael believed that at some point. He was really grateful to us, but I don’t think we played any role. We were just there, we shot, and nothing else. I never went to see the judge and told him to change his mind! [Laughs.] We tried to look at the justice system, but not to be involved.
How did you feel about Judge Hudson’s interview at the end? He expresses regret about some evidence that was allowed at the trial.
DR: I felt like, “Gee, it’s about time.” I think it took a lot of guts for him to say that in his mind there is reasonable doubt. You don’t hear many judges who preside at trials like this one say they think the jury got it wrong. Admitting that what you did was not legally correct took a lot of guts. I just wish it had been 16 years earlier.
I assumed that the owl theory would be covered in these new episodes, but it wasn’t really mentioned. How much thought did you give to the theory that Kathleen’s injuries were the result of an animal attack?
DR: Zero, because the first time it ever crossed my consciousness was a day or two before my closing argument. Even if I was willing to come in after six months of saying it was a fall and say, “Sorry folks, it wasn’t a fall, it was an owl that first caused these wounds,” I couldn’t do that because there was no evidence of that in the trial. In the closing argument, you’re limited to evidence that’s been presented at trial. When you step back and really start getting familiar with the fact that there have been literally scores if not hundreds of documented instances of owls attacking the heads of people … and you look at the wounds and you compare them with the talons of an owl, it starts having some real credibility.
JXL: The purpose of the film was to follow the legal process. If there would have been another trial, I’m sure that the owl theory would have been examined inside the courtroom. But because it was never introduced inside the courtroom, I decided not to talk about that theory. It’s really a mystery, the way she died.